Modern Asian Makers

September 11, 2008 at 04:41 PM · One day a couple years ago, just for kicks, I ordered a cheap viola on ebay. (I know, I know. Ebay is bad, but I just wanted something to mess with.) Recently I had this instrument appraised at $800 to $1200. You can imagine my shock being that I purchased it for only $200.

I have looked online and not found much information about the maker of my viola and was hoping you guys could help me out. The signature looks just as this viola's at the following website... http://www.stringnet.com/ViewProduct.asp?ModelNumber=FengVla

Can anyone tell me anything about this maker or the validity of the estimated value?

Replies (36)

September 12, 2008 at 11:25 AM · I'm sorry that I cannot tell you much about the luthier,Ben hui Feng, although I have infomation that his work is noted as being of fine quality by some luthiers. Nevertheless, I can give you some interesting information as to the possible origin of your instrument.I viewed the viola you have purchased. I do know that quilited maple is an exotic wood, as well as very beautiful, at that. It's demand seems to be gaining some ground for those looking for something different. In my experience with Chinese made instruments,I purchased a 5 string violin from E-Bay (for a winning bid of $9.00/$40.00 s+h) I really did not expect a great violin, but was very surprised at both the quality and workmanship, atlhough the strings, fingerboard and bridge were nothing great. After replacing those with better quality fittings, I was amazed at the tone and response that was produced by the instrument. I spoke to a very knowledgeable luthier whom I have conducted business with for many years, and he explained that China is making fine instruments (opposed to the past instruments that used to be produced) due to both the more rigid quality standards of production (yes, they are massed produced and not usually by one maker and not under very good working conditions, but that is a political thing and beyond the scope of this discussion)and particularly of the quality of woods that are available in China now. Common demand is also playing a part. Teachers are seeking good quality instruments for there students, with out having to spend a fortune. It would be utter foolishness to allow a beginning student to be responsible for an expensive instrument, although I seen this happen. With disasterous results every time. In any case, some of the wood is harvested and allowed to age for at least 4-8 years before being used in string instrument making. Some wood is reused from the timber used in demolished houses that may have stood for 50-90 years. When one purchases one these instruments, one takes the chance that it may be made of either. You may have gotten lucky! In the old days (ca.1880-1920) Germany massed produced string instruments that were of very high quality for the price at that time, which would have been about $12.00. Today these instruments are still sought after by some collectors. That was considered a fair amount of money then. Today, both Germany and Italy are rather wanting in fine woods as their supplies are natually depleted. It is not an uncommon thing for luthiers all over the world to purchase wood itself from the Chinese market. The reasons for this is mainly that the wood is well aged and can be had a bargain price. The factory instruments are often sent to German (but sometimes else where) shops for final touches,i.e, graduations, varnishing and fittings. They are then distrubited to other markets under a completly different name. This journey eradicates the true origin of the instrument, but quality is still quality. Keep in mind that a name is a name, but a dollar is a dollar. Some of these factories do not last long, due to economic/political situations. Well known makers place high prices on their wares due to supply in demand. Other factors of why Chinese instrument wood are of great quality is one of climate that makes the Chinese woods very good for the making of instruments. One may see a single person's name in the instrument, but that is usually just the model. Who hasn't had an experience with meeting someone who says "I've got a Stradivarius!" and the owner of which is soon disenchanted to discover that it is probably one of thousands massed produced and the label is a copy as well? There are many Chinese luthiers who are producing single, hand made instruments, but these can run into the thousands of dollars, as would be expected. And I predict that in the future that many Chinese (both private makers and factory works)luthier's works will be in demand, as unusual as it would seem to those who have been taught that only a fine violin has to be Italian, German or French in origin. A search of your particular maker would best be done by a luthier, or someone with more access to the literature of the trade (which can become rather secretive)as there has been many instances in my experiences with violins of all nationalities, where the name of the maker is nowhere to be found in an internet search to date. Perhaps one of our Chinese members of V-Com can be of help?

September 12, 2008 at 01:49 PM · Thanks for the response. Though I didn't purchase the particular instrument listed, I purchased one similar with your typical flamed maple. I just wanted an example of the signature for the readers.

September 12, 2008 at 02:25 PM · well, no pros in China play Chinese crafted violins, so this says something.

I have tried about 100 by now. Agreed: the build quality and finishing of the betters ones can be excellent. Overall, the Chinese violins can produce sweet highs. But so far I find them all to be lacking in the lower register, especially the G string: thin, and no power. The sound cracks when volume is needed. Also, Chinese woods do not mature in sound with age. Excellent value for students, though.

September 12, 2008 at 05:49 PM · Jerald Archer wrote:

"Today, both Germany and Italy are rather wanting in fine woods as their supplies are natually depleted. It is not an uncommon thing for luthiers all over the world to purchase wood itself from the Chinese market."

___________________________

I'm speechless!

September 12, 2008 at 06:22 PM · Ouch! I did not mean to strike a nerve to your vocal cords, by any means. Even as I reread the statement, I am aware that I am making a statement which I think could use more clarification by more authorative references. This has been verbally passed on to me by 1 luthier only, apart from millions, I'm certain, so it may only be 1 person's opinion, even possibly erronous.This is how bad rumours and myths can get started.. I am not an expert as to the subject of the art of lutherie, only what I know what works as a violin player. I apologize for any offense to you, to Germany and Italy and to all the luthiers who would never consider such an action as getting a bargain.

Jerald Franklin Archer

September 12, 2008 at 08:42 PM · The female Chinese singers I've heard often (or always?) have an ear-splitting quality in their voice. I wonder if there's a difference in asthetic that would affect violin making as well.

September 12, 2008 at 06:18 PM · Some Chinese luthiers also use European spruce and maple to build their higher quality instruments-- I would think European woods combined with good Chinese workmanship would put out a pretty good instrument for the price!

Joseph

September 12, 2008 at 08:30 PM · As an oriental would say, you need an inner atitude in order to make a good instrument, not just tools, wood and technique, just my two cents.

www.manfio.com

September 12, 2008 at 10:29 PM · A lot of good wood recently has come from the Bosnia and Slovakia region. Wood dealers in Slovakia sell massive quantities of their lesser grades to China.

"Boutique" makers don't generally buy aged wood. There would be no way to verify how long it has been seasoned. Instead, they buy wood which is fairly new, and age it themselves. It's the only way to really know.

September 12, 2008 at 11:17 PM · When I was a teen, I bought some wood for a top and back and sides from IVC. One time on a trip home from college I remembered it and I looked for it, but my parents had thrown it out, probably thinking it was scrap from something. If I still had it, I'd give it to you, long as you sent me a picture of the violin it made. It would be nice and aged by this point :D

September 13, 2008 at 02:25 AM · One point to distinguish is between a violin made in China from a violin made elsewhere by a person of Chinese ethnicity.

I can speak only of the ones made in China. The industry here is maturing, and diversifiying. We have now violins made in factories and made individually by a single, independent craftsman. I would not be surprised if the total number of "makers" exceeded 1000. Though I have not played all, the 100 or so I have tried provide a sample worthy of statistical inference.

To elaborate on Mr Burgess' point, the woods used by makers here have three sources: southern and northern China, and imports mostly from Bosnia. I have commented prior about the Chinese woods. From what I see, and have confirmed with luthiers here, the imported woods are not the top grades. Too expensive for the market here, and so 99% of woods are imported for violins destined for exports. To me, this import/export has a certain irony to it.

But a rumour I have heard that some eastern EU woods are actually bought from Canada and USA, and sold as EU woods.

I suppose we cannot avoid commercial realities. caveat emptor.

September 13, 2008 at 11:38 AM · may be luis and david can help enlighten some,,,

esp david, since he is on the top of his craft considering his exposure to those vsa competition both as winnerS and judge (?)...not knowing what exactly he looks for in his own violins, when he looks at someone else's violin, as a judge, can he tell grade 1 from 2 (for simplicity, lets put 5 grades out here)? how much attention/weight does he put on wood choice? hmm, excellent wood choice..check!?

for instance, does even grain really have an advantage over uneven grain?

does width of grain really matter?

in terms of what really matters...what percentage is craftsmanship, wood, varnish (double sides or not!!!) responsible for the final sound quality? i think 90% is due to craftsmanship,,,ok, may be i am being extreme here, so i will settle for 95%:) not to beat the dead horse, any evidence on elite old italians in terms of the age of the wood when the violins were constructed?

(well, some may argue what really matters is what customers are willing to pay, as in money in the bank, not what one charges,,,:)

64k question: if and when the chinese can afford to buy the best european woods, would their violin sound different from now? somehow i doubt it.

September 13, 2008 at 02:33 PM · Relative to cultural tonal bias, when I worked at WH Lee 20 years ago many of the makers there were Cambodian, trained in the shop. One day one of them came up to me and asked about the instrument I know as an erhu (he had a Cambodian name for it)--whether anyone in this country made or played them. I answered that it was basically an Asian instrument, not popular here, and he said "Why not? Easier to make. . . and it sounds better [than the violin], too." About that time, I also had a visit from an Asian man who had invented a soundpost that moved the violin sound in that same direction, and he was promoting it as an improvement in violin sound, which from my perspective it certainly was not.

Many of the Chinese violins I saw through the 80s and 90s seemed to have been made with this tonal preference in mind, but in the last few years they have been more and more in line with western taste, tonally, probably as the makers there get more exposure to the western violin sound. I also know a couple of western makers who have worked over the last 10 years or so as consultants for the Chinese violin factories, and maybe we're seeing their influence, too.

September 13, 2008 at 04:21 PM · Interesting approach Michael. I find that the sound of good violins, violas and celli have something related to the "voce impostata" of soprano, contralto and tenor singers. Many things that are important to the "voce impostata" are the same of the instruments of the violin family: projection, volume, dynamic range, good sound in pianissimo and fortissimo, focus, harmonics, etc.

I had the oportunity to see a concert of traditional Japanese music here sometime ago, it was an orchestra composed of "Koto", "biwas" and other traditional japanese instruments, and they performed what would be called as their "clasical music". It's incredible how the instruments features matched the style of the singers.

www.manfio.com

September 13, 2008 at 11:41 PM · Aal ku wrote:

"may be luis and david can help enlighten some,,,

esp david, since he is on the top of his craft considering his exposure to those vsa competition both as winnerS and judge (?).......how much attention/weight does he put on wood choice?"

__________________________________

Next to none when it comes to judging.

If the wood choice has an influence on sound, that's a matter for the tone judges, not the workmanship/style judges, in my opinion.

On my own stuff, I like fancy wood. :-)

September 14, 2008 at 12:36 AM · I've seen so much fancy, that I sort of prefer plain anymore. Plain is the new fancy :)

September 14, 2008 at 12:59 AM · The development of violin in China reminds me of the story of 2 blind men who try to describe an elephant: with one standing at the head, and the other at the rear.

Violin is an instrument introduced, not born in China. During the cultural revolution, millions of violins were destroyed, and most luthiers incarerated. The workshops, tools, books all destroyed. Risk of severe punishment for anyone who tried to copy or play a western "decadent" instrument. And, a closed border to the west for 50 years.

So, how would anyone in China get their hands on a "real" violin to study its mechanics and build? And after 50 years, who would be left to have even the slightest idea of how to craft a violin? Without a passport, who could travel to attend foreign schools? Without any money at all, how could this be possible?

Thus, the impetus for violin making in China is not cultural, but rather esoteric and commercial. A few luthiers try to create worthy instruments, but the vast majority want to capitalise on the arbitrage.

For those who try, the challenge is daunting. How to make something you have never heard/seen before, except from photos and recordings? Stern was the first to bring a Strad to China, 30 yrs ago, but only a very lucky few actually heard it up close.

So it is all the more remarkable that some Chinese violins come close to a western sounding violin.

September 15, 2008 at 02:14 AM · An acquaintance of mine spent a week or two working with a Chinese youth orchestra. He was a bit perturbed by the tinny and rather wailing tone of the violins (mostly Chinese made) that the kids were playing. But when he was taken one night to traditional Chinese opera performance, he realised immediately why that might be so - the trad Chinese stringed instruments (not just erhu) in the opera orchestra sounded just the same as the local violins the kids were using.

September 15, 2008 at 05:17 AM · Comments on the state-of-the-art: I personally do not lend much credence to the notion that if you do not play an Italian instrument, you are handicapping yourself in some meaningful way. I do not care what the ethnicity of any maker is today. Anyone, with proper training, can work to the tried and true standards established by the Italian Masters. I only differentiate between hand-made and factory made instruments. Hand-made instruments are made from superior grades of aged timber. Why would anyone spend 200+ hours fashioning an instrument from crate building material? Factory offerings, regardless of where the wood comes from, are only aged 2-3 years. Quality Eastern European timber is graded and sold by age, moisture content, and grain pattern. More age, striking grain pattern, more money! You can not sell a violin made from the very best wood available for $20-$50, as the Chinese factories do.

Another thing to consider is that the rigid craft guild apprenticeship traditions of the past, i.e.,Italian, German, and French have long been set aside, or watered down. This is where the details and nuances of the work were passed on to the next generation of craftsmen.

Today an apprentice needs to enroll in a good school, be a self starter, and keep his eye on the prize. If he is blessed with good hands, good ears, a keen intellect, and refined appreciation of what a violin is suppose to sound like, he is on the right path regardless of where he was born. GG

September 15, 2008 at 01:38 PM · "But when he was taken one night to traditional Chinese opera performance, he realised immediately why that might be so - the trad Chinese stringed instruments (not just erhu) in the opera orchestra sounded just the same as the local violins the kids were using."

interesting observation but poorly informed, not surprising if the informant fails to think deeper and broader. in other words, as the saying goes, there is a simple answer to everything and it is usually wrong. i say, if you are looking for a wrong answer, it will find you! :)

we know how junky chinese violins sound like. we also know how german junky violins sound like. we know how any junky violins sound like. they sound the same, they sound like crap, a mixture of constipation and diarrhea. one does not have to sit in a chinese opera to come to that revelation. to make that association is sophomoric at best, suggesting that all junky violin makers of the world, with discerning ears for bad sounds, have congregated in a chinese opera and planned their course.

brooklyn bridge, brooklyn bridge, brooklyn bridge...for sale,,,

September 15, 2008 at 01:44 PM · But Al, I believe the comment was about the sound of the non-western instruments in the opera, not the violins. Are you denying that there are cultural differences in taste?

September 15, 2008 at 02:14 PM · michael, concur with the cultural difference in preferred sound. i know of chinese elders listening to traditional peking opera night and day and i cannot stand it. it squeals too much for my taste. owing to my ignorance, some eastern indian music sounds funny, making me bobbing my head to it.

i understand the referrence was about traditional chinese instruments in that opera which was precisely my point. the implication is that junky chinese western violin makers might have taken cues from their environment and come up with junky sounding violins to the western ears.

i don't buy that. not at all. if you steam, fry, and boil wood plates at 2 dollars a piece and then sell it on ebay for 9.99, you could care less what they sound like as long as the glossy varnish catch someone's fancy. as long as on the paypal account they push,,,send.

ps. those chinese makers are not stupid. they know very well what is out there. it is simply a business decision. once they make their money, they will go to michael's shop to get a good sounding violin for their kids. hey, no matter where you go, there you are.

September 15, 2008 at 04:10 PM · I had a salesman come to my shop in the mid 90s pushing a Chinese line. He had three levels of instrument. The highest price one sounded the worst, the next level down was better, and the bottom was the best. That's not an isolated incident. I'm sort of stuck with the idea that there was some intent going on, but that it was backwards from what I needed.

For a long time they were set on the idea that a glassy, hard varnish was desirable, to the extent that I would regard as an Asian taste, and you might as well have coated the violins with chrome--they both looked and sounded that way.

September 16, 2008 at 11:32 AM · Perhaps we should judge each violin on it's own merits rather than trying to invent lazy generalisations which seem end up promoting prejudices. I sell many Chinese violins and they offer better value for money in the sub £2000 price bracket. The best of 100 year old European commercial work rarely compares to the best of what I buy from China. I feel much better much more content accepting a parent's hard earned cash for a healthy new artictically made violin which is made in accordance with the correct models and principles.

Of course I am talking about advanced student instruments, some of the best are occasionally worthy of being described as professional quality instruments though.

Could I also say that relying on a 'brand' is not reliable at all. My advice is to stay away from the bigger names we all see advertising in 'The Strad' etc. Mass production and violins don't sit well together.

September 16, 2008 at 11:57 AM · I am pleased that this discussion went so long before someone took the shallow way out to suggest that such discussions of culture are merely racist.

September 16, 2008 at 12:20 PM ·

September 16, 2008 at 12:08 PM · for one i think picking on the chinese is a fun activity and in vogue. isn't it a more healthy approach to point fingers at others instead ourselves?

american businessmen flock to china to outsource the fake goods, while the chinese i know charter planes to come to the USA to buy the real thing.

communism? china has been the most capitalistic country in the world in the past 20 years, while good ole america is turning communistic, with the feds stepping in to become everyone's landlord with the fanie mae bailout... and we complain of chinese junky violins???

September 16, 2008 at 12:54 PM · Chinese violins are of interest on a violin board because the Chinese have virtually taken over the low dollar end of the business. If you want to discuss finance, there are lots of boards where that is the primary topic of discussion, and I'm sure they're not discussing violins, if violins are a topic you want to get away from. :-)

Personally, I think it's interesting that this discussion on violin tone is making everyone so uncomfortable. If the topic were Italian tone or French tone, or American tone, no one would be complaining. Ah, rampant, obsessive and blind political correctness!

September 16, 2008 at 02:16 PM · michael, my point is that one cannot look at junky tone of junky chinese violins as a single entity without considering other factors, such as finance, socio-political factors, sino-phobia, etc. to discuss on a finance board will be pointless because people there understand.

it seems that it is the non chinese makers and non-chinese violins sellers who are most uncomfortable with the mention of chinese made violins. i like to shoot straight; correct me if i am wrong.

and, what may be more mind boggling may not be those low end junky chinese violins, but VSA winners straight from china.

and we are talking about finance, without stretching imagination.

September 16, 2008 at 04:08 PM · I don't mind talk of finance, but would rather not be subjected to posts whose fundamental tone reeks of U.S. partisan politics.

Other boards have special places for people who wish to get on their political soapbox.

September 16, 2008 at 04:31 PM · Michael you are right. Many Chinese making violin(Maybe more specific , violin that made in China) do sound like Erhu to my ears .

But now some makers do getting better and better ,while many are still sound like a Erhu.

September 16, 2008 at 06:00 PM · Michael, I fail to see how suggesting we judge violins on their merits is shallow. I'm merely suggesting that attempting to make generalisations about violins based on their country of origin is nonsense. However it isn't half as nonsensical as the notion of a correlation between shrill opera singers and violin tone. What about a Chinese violin maker who listens to western opera singers? Will he or she make different violins. The notion is as ridiculous, misguided and as poorly thought out as your post.

September 16, 2008 at 06:42 PM · the issue is about possible ethnic association, which i refuted earlier. concur that chinese made junky violins shrill like some chinese traditional instruments, but junky violins made in other countries sound similar.

if you put forth the latter, you cannot make a cute social observation out of the former, can you? :)

September 16, 2008 at 07:11 PM · Not to interrupt the argument that's been going on, but all I wanted was information on a violin maker who I cannot find any information about. This wasn't supposed to be an attack on Asian instruments.

September 16, 2008 at 09:12 PM · Dispite all of the personal opinions posted, Asian instruments are valuable in many ways, particularly in the sense that they are affordable, and as I stated in my post above: It would be utter foolishness to allow a beginning student to be responsible for an expensive instrument, although I've seen this happen.With disasterous results every time.

Bearing this logic in mind, it allows those students to have access to a decent, but not concert grade instrument that in some cases, may help foster a fine violinist in the future. The cost makes it viable for introducing the instrument to a young student.The day when they reach a certain level is the day to buy a higher quality violin.

Your question was:

"Can anyone tell me anything about this maker or the validity of the estimated value?"

September 18, 2008 at 06:55 AM · well, I've asked around, and nobody in Shanghai has heard of Hui Feng.

Labels means absolutely nothing in China. In fact, most are sold without labels. The viola in the link looks extremely similar to the violas/violins a factory here produces. Chinese woods, burl wood, and glossy finish. The retail price noted may be 2.5X the landed cost.

FYI,, good violins are no longer cheap in China. the better ones sell for prices starting at $1500 from the factory, and go up to $5000 from well-known luthiers. An average would be say $3000. These are made with imported woods, and are far superior in sound to Chinese-made violins I have tried in NA.

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